Former cricketer Imran Khan appears set to become Pakistan’s next prime minister, according to the results of Wednesday’s election. The election result marks a transition of leadership from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party (PML-N) of the ousted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Khan’s Pakistan Justice Movement (PTI), which promoted an anti-corruption agenda in its campaign.
Khan, who captained a World Cup-winning Pakistan cricket team in 1992, has shed his playboy image to become a serious contender in Pakistani politics in recent years. He has promised improvements to the country’s healthcare and education systems, as well as more employment opportunities, making him a popular candidate among Pakistan’s large youth population.
However, the legitimacy of this election has already been called into question. PML-N and a handful of smaller parties have rejected the election outcome, accusing the influential Pakistani military of vote-rigging in favour of Khan. Furthermore, Pakistani news outlet Dawn reported on Thursday that the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has raised concerns regarding the voting process following reports that women were prevented from voting in many areas of the country.
Additionally, this result comes against a backdrop of violence, in what the BBC has called ‘Pakistan’s dirtiest election in years’. Though over 350,000 army personnel were deployed to protect civilians at the polls, Pakistan has seen some of the worst violence in recent years during this election period. On election day, a suicide bombing believed to have targetted a police van killed 32 near a polling station in Quetta, Baluchistan province. Baluchistan is among the areas most affected by violence, as Islamist militants with links to ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban operate in this area and indigenous Baluch insurgents clash with the central government. An earlier attack on a political rally in Mastung in Baluchistan killed 149 people, making it the most deadly attack in Pakistan in over three years. This attack claimed the life of an electoral candidate, Siraj Raisani, the second candidate killed in the space of a week in the run-up to this election. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks in both Quetta and Mastung.
Violence and military control have dominated the democratic process in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto – who became the first ever female Prime Minister of a Muslim nation in 1988 and the first female leader to have a child whilst in office in 1990 – returned from exile in 2007 with plans to contest the 2008 election, but was assassinated at a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) rally. More than ten years on, the 2018 election marks only the second time in the country’s history that one civilian government has handed power to another after serving a full term.
While Khan has the support of Pakistan’s young voters, his is not necessarily a victory for democracy as he has made no indication of a desire to reform Pakistan’s controlled democracy into a full democracy. Pakistan’s military establishment is hugely influential in foreign policy, security and business. Pakistan’s political observers see reducing tensions with India to improve the country’s international reputation as one of Khan’s primary challenges. This will force him to face up against the influence of the military, which has been held largely responsible for ongoing friction across Pakistan’s borders.
However, this election cycle has brought some hope of progress, particularly among Pakistan’s transgender community. Pakistan is now ‘leading in the region’ for transgender rights, according to Uzma Yaqoob of the transgender rights group the Forum for Dignity Initiative, after the passage of the landmark Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill in 2017. The Bill aims to prevent harassment of and discrimination against transgender people whilst affording the transgender community, known locally as khwaja sira, greater legal recognition. It is thought that five transgender candidates were contesting seats in Wednesday’s election, including Nayyab Ali of the All Pakistan Transgender Election Network, who highlighted the importance of finding a voice for transgender rights in Pakistani politics: ‘The transgender community is progressing slowly in Pakistan — we’re finding positions in various industries like education and journalism. But the real change-making power lies in politics, which is why I’m contesting the elections this year…’ Maria Khan, a transgender woman who survived an attempted assassination orchestrated by her own family, stood as a candidate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where almost 60 transgender women have been killed since 2015. She felt that previous politicians ‘did nothing for the people’ and vowed to tackle issues such as a long water shortage that has affected her community.
It remains to be seen how Pakistan’s major political players – including its influential military – will react to these results and deal with allegations of electoral fraud. However, despite the turbulence of the election period, those celebrating Khan’s victory are hopeful that he can improve Pakistan. One British Pakistani student who cast her vote in Islamabad shared her perspective on the election and Pakistan’s current political climate. She believes that, while voting liberties remain restricted in some areas of the country, measures have been taken to ensure voter security at polling stations: ‘when I went to vote there was police around the polling station, army officers next to where people were voting and rangers… This is at every polling station to ensure a clean, free and fair election and I genuinely believe it was fair’. She added that, in some parts of the country, voters headed to the polls in the face of extreme violence to demand change as they are tired of propaganda, repression and corruption. For many of these voters, Khan represents a transition away from the status quo of Pakistani politics.
She expressed hope that Khan would be the leader to implement development of Pakistan’s economy and social infrastructure, and promote accountability among the country’s political elite. She also suggested that Khan’s primary challenge will be in tackling tensions with India over disputed territory in Kashmir, in which the Pakistani military has been highly involved. The international community will be watching closely to see how Khan approaches this and the many other issues he faces as he assumes office.